Letters of G. J. Curtin

Sgt. G.J. Curtin, Co. C, 302 Engrs  A.E.F.

American Red Cross stationery

 Sept 26, 1918

 Dear Helen [his sister]:

 Received your letter of August 26 and May’s of Aug 23 (from Waterford) today.  Pop was in great luck to hear Capt. Thomasson because the Capt. has great ability as a storyteller and he must have been very interesting.

      Of course we were all sorry to lose our C.O. but at the same time one cannot remain sorry very long for a man who has an opportunity to return to the States.  That is a thing that we can hardly even dream about, and then we understand that Capt Thomasson is to become a Major.  We also lost Lieut. Avery and Lieut Miller, two of the finest men you would care to know.  We understand that they will be captains or Majors. 

      That’s the start for Co. C., having three officers picked for promotion.  Then they gave us  Lieut. Harder, now Capt. Harder, as our C.O. – On our last front our men went out twenty four successive nights and worked under shell and machine gun fire most of the time in the front lines and sometimes ahead of them and the Capt. was out every night and every day.  He’s the coolest individual in the company and we have a pretty cool headed bunch of men in this outfit.

      If you want to see what our men have done and can get a copy of the Stars and Stripes you will find the engineers mentioned pretty near all over the front page.  In every incident except possibly one small item it was company C that furnished the material for the stories which is not to be wondered at, because we did the most advanced work of the whole regt. for the entire time our division held the sector, which was over a month, or until the advance started.

    Even your delicate brother managed to come in for a little notice from the Col. by crawling out into no-man’s land on his belly in the mud and getting some information that was necessary to carry on the work.  The fact that the Jerry outpost machine gunners heard me and my pal (Dan Quinn, top sgt.) and opened up on us and sent up star shells only made things more interesting.  In fact as I lay there as close to the ground as I could squeeze right out in the open with the star shells making it as light as day and the old machine guns playing away like typewriters,  I happened to think that we two were in advance of the whole American army and I couldn’t keep from grinning.  Strange as it may seen, I wasn’t the least bit afraid.  My head was toward the machine guns, and somehow I had wonderful confidence in my helmet.

      That night we were pretty important chaps on our front.  They held up the artillery fire for fear of getting us and put out a covering party of our own machine gunners to cover us in case of trouble.  The outpost Lieut. shook hands with us and wished us luck and altogether we had a great time of it.

     On our way back we crawled to within about 15 yards of the cover which was the end of a sunken road and then Dan whispered, “will we make a break for it?” (We had a slight rise to cross.)  I said “let’s go” and made two jumps, a dive onto my belly and rolled into the cover with Dan right on top of me.  I wish Ma could have seen me then.  I was completely covered with mud from my ears to my toes.  Well just imagine crawling inch by inch through six inches of mud and just as far down in it as you could get – That trip was only the start of our night’s entertainment.  We had to go back through a ruined village that was covered on two sides by Jerry snipers and machine guns and had to duck from cover to cover, (walls, ditches, houses).  One of us would run across an opening and you would hear “zing – zing –zing –zing.  Then in about five minutes the other would run across as if the devil was after him.  Finally we got to the artillery observation officer and reported to him.  He asked about our trip and chatted a while and then said “Well now I can unchain my beauties and I’ll make it hot for those friends of yours (We had reported the location of the machine guns that had fired at us) and I guess he did because the old guns started barking away in fine style.

   We still had about half a mile to go, along a road partly protected by banks with little dugouts about every ten feet.  We just got started when Jerry opened up on the road.  We could hear the shells coming in time to duck into a dugout.  As soon as the shell exploded we would duck out and run past one dugout and just make the next one before the w-s-h-h-h zing of the next close one.  And that’s the way we went for over half a mile.  Jerry seemed to follow us all along the road, sometimes a little ahead of us and sometimes a little in back and sometimes almost on top of us.

    Our cave was near the top of a hill or the reverse side to Jerry and when we reached the foot of that hill we thought sure we were safe, but they dropped four big ones ( H Es) on that hill on our way up and each time we heard them come, of course we dropped flat on our faces.  The last one came along just as we reached the entrance to the cave.  I guess it must have landed about fifty feet away but I thought it was right on my dome.  I didn’t duck, I just ran and made the cave.

    Well that was one wild night I’ll say – we lost our first man that night on that same road, about half an hour after we got in.  He didn’t duck quite fast enough.

     Now don’t think from the above that I am posing as a dare-devil, because I’m not one.  During the excitement I took it as a joke, it really was great sport ducking those babies but the next morning I was scared stiff when I realized what I had been through.  And the joke of it is that Dan Quinn’s job and mine are probably the two safest ones in the company.

     In fact that’s why I volunteered to go on the first job calling for volunteers just to show the boys that I was there and Quinn told me afterwards that he volunteered for the same reason.  So I’ve probably had my most exciting day in the war and pulled through OK and I do like to talk about it, don’t I?

      Well you may think that my stunt was exciting, but you ought to hear of some of the one’s the boys pulled off after that.  It makes me look like a piker.  Three of our boys went over in Jerry’s lines one night and burned down a row of his barracks right under his nose.  Nine went with an infantry party into a town held by the Germans, burned every building in town, burned up some supply dumps and rations dumps.  Five came back and four were missing.  Five days afterward two of the missing men came in with their hand and their faces absolutely coal black.  They had been cut off from the main body and had hid for five days with a wounded doughboy (infantryman) under a pile of charcoal bags in back of the German lines, with only six one day rations between them and two canteens of water.  To get back to our lines, they killed a German machine gun crew with hand grenades carried the wounded man across our open stretch of fields under machine gun fire and swam a small river.

      In the daytime, they put charcoal bags over their heads and looked over the ground and located positions and got information that was very valuable in the advance.  And finally they called on two of our men to show the advance patrol of infantry the way across the river when the grand push started.

     Those were only the individual stunts.  I guess every man in the company has done enough during that stretch to entitle him to a pension for the rest of his life, the narrow escapes would make your hair stand on end.  One shell landed within a few feet of our kitchen.  There was one box full of canned pumpkin, boxes of pepper, mustard, etc.  Well talk about your pumpkin pie – I believe some of that pumpkin landed in division headquarters.  I know every man in Co. C had pumpkin in him somewhere and both literally and figuratively our pumpkin pie was “all shot.”  One of the KP wore a sacred heart pin on his shirt pocket.  He saw it laying on the ground and looked to see how it fell off  - he found his pocket torn off and a hole clean through his gas mask.

 Much later – Oct 15

 Dear Helen,

 I had to cut this letter because we were ordered to move.  We thought we were in for a rest.  Our rest consisted of driving Jerry out of one his strongest positions and chasing him fifteen to twenty miles through some of the toughest country you can imagine.  As usual several companies of engineers, Co. C included, led the way in the first over the top to clear the way and then the doughboys took it and my how those boys can fight. I don’t know how many of them are left now but they are still at it and the old artillery is banging away sending Jerry his iron rations.

    I think that one of the funniest things I have heard here was an infantry captain instructing his lieutenants and sergeants just before they were to take up on advanced position.  It was a pitch dark, rainy night and we were located in a gully.  I happened to be in the kitchen which was a corrugated iron shack which we had put up.  I had been flooded out of my dugout and Bobbie Richardson? And I went in there to sleep.  This was the only place we could have a light because we were so close to the lines and the infantry captain came in an asked us if he could stay a while.  He had just returned from a trip to the place his company was to occupy and as I said was explaining things to his officers.  He said:

     “We are to go up to this position tonight and every man is to dig himself in.  It’s on a platform with absolutely no protection.  I want every man to start digging when he gets there – and dig all night and in the daytime.  I don’t want any man to show so much as a finger above ground for any reason whatever.  If any one had the diarreahs, let him dig a deeper hole.”

    The 1st __? Said “What’s the best road to take?”  The Capt. said “I don’t know, and I don’t give a damn.  I just went and came back and I’ll go again.  It’s as black as the inside of a black cow.  I got my direction and started off and didn’t give a damn about roads, and pretty near broke my fool neck.  Look at these pants. “ (he was covered in mud and his breeches were torn.) “ I know damn well what I’ll do when the next war comes – I’ll join the naval reserve at Newport and have afternoon tea with Mrs. Astor.  Then he turned around to me quickly and said “Wouldn’t I make a hell of a fine sight to have afternoon tea with Mrs. Astor right now!”

     Bob and I were sitting on a box breaking our sides laughing.  I can’t begin to tell you all the funny things he said or the snappy way he spoke, but he sure was some man.

     Then a Sgt. came in a reported that one of the men had lost his gas mask and wanted to know if he would take him along.  And the Capt. went up in the air again: “Of course we can’t take him.” He turned to me and said “Sgt, can you find any work for this man?”  I said “yes sir, I guess we can keep him busy in the kitchen.  I’ll see the mess Sgt. in the morning.”  “All right then.  Work the living daylights out of him!  If you kill him, all right!  You have not only my permission but my approval.”  Then he warned them again about not showing so much as a finger when they were dug in “or we’ll all be annihilated.  If only the ones that showed themselves were killed I’d say all right let the damn fools get it.  It would be a good way to get rid of them.  But it’s never the man who pulls a fool stunt who gets it. He generally gets off scot free and the good men suffer for it.”

     Then he started to sneeze while explaining about the men with diarrhea digging a deeper hole and the more he sneezed the madder he got.  Oh! It sure was funny.  But it’s not all fun over here by any means.  I witnessed one of the saddest incidents I have yet seen yesterday, but I can’t tell you about it. I’ll tell you all those things when I get back.    Well Helen I will have to close now.  The doughboys made another over the top so I guess we will have to move again.  It was a grand site to watch them go over.  The front line was in the valley and we could see the whole thing from the hill.  All of a sudden a line of our boys seemed to come up out of the ground and started ahead at a fairly slow pace.  They seemed to be absolutely unconcerned although you could see some of them go down.  There was an awful racket of machine gun fire from both sides and then a little further ahead another line of men got up and starred running back.  They were the Jerries and then there was the devil to pay.  I can’t describe it.   In a little while the prisoners started coming in and the doughboys went ahead out of sight.  I don’t know how far they went.  They may be going yet for all I know.  They can talk about the regulars or the marines or anyone else but if there is a gamer bunch in this army than those boys who went over yesterday I’d like to see them.

    Well we expect a relief anytime now.  God knows we’re entitled to it.  And then I guess the war will be over before we’re in the line again.  Love to all, Gerald

Sgt. G.J. Curtin, Co. C, 302 Engrs  A.E.F.

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